For many, life insurance can be an essential ingredient of a well considered estate plan. Using life insurance may help achieve many of your key estate planning goals, like the continuity of your small business or allowing a child to continue their college education. Just like the rest of your estate plan, your life insurance policy can benefit from periodic checkups to make sure that no updates, such as beneficiary changes, are needed to make certain that your plan will accomplish what you want.
Life insurance policies can serve a wide array of benefits. Life insurance can be an invaluable component of your estate plan, allowing your loved ones or other beneficiaries to accomplish many of your estate planning desires. Life insurance can help pay taxes or other bills, keep your small business continuing after your death, keep a child in college or achieve any of a number of other objectives.
Generally, the proceeds from a life insurance policy pass directly to the people or entities you name in your policy's documents, without requiring a probate process. There are a few situations, though, where the death benefit from your policy could end up in your probate estate, and require administration to distribute. If you expressly name your estate as the beneficiary of your policy, then your life insurance would go through probate. Also, if you name only one person as your policy's primary death beneficiary, you risk having your policy proceeds end up in probate if that person you named dies before you do. That's why it is almost always a good idea to name several contingent (or back-up) beneficiaries who you would want to receive that money if your primary beneficiary dies before you do.
This is also why it is a good idea to perform an estate plan “check-up” routinely to make sure that none the pieces of your estate plan require updating. An estate plan check-up involves everything in your plan, whether it is your will, trusts, powers of attorney, life insurance, pay-on-death or transfer-on-death accounts or other assets. Your check-up may help you identify potential risks and make the necessary changes to address them, such as adding additional or different beneficiaries to your life insurance or other accounts.
Depending on the size of your estate, it may also make sense to place your life insurance policy in what's called an “irrevocable life insurance trust,” or ILIT. If your estate is large enough that you are facing a potential estate tax obligation, you'll want to take the necessary steps to ensure that your life insurance is not including in your estate. Your ILIT is special type of trust specifically dedicated to holding and owning your life insurance. Your ILIT is managed by the person you name to be the trustee of that trust. You cannot be the trustee of your own ILIT, because serving in that capacity means that you would hold what the IRS calls “incidents of ownership” of the policy, which defeats the tax advantages of the ILIT. You are, however, generally free to name anyone else, including your spouse or a child, to be the trustee of your ILIT.